Looking for the Milky Way at Wild Goose Island, Glacier

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There’s a saying that “half the park happens after dark.” Unfortunately, that’s usually when I’m trying to recharge after a jam-packed day.  But on one day, someone convinced me to stay up far past my bedtime, and attempt something I had never done before: photograph the Milky Way.  And if you’re looking for a place to see the stars, it’s possible that there’s no better place to watch daylight fade into darkness than the Wild Goose Island overlook.

Location

Wild Goose Island is located in St. Mary’s Lake, on the east side of Glacier National Park, Montana.  There is a viewpoint along the side of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

My Visit

I had enjoyed a nice sunset at Logan Pass, and was ready to get back to my motel in East Glacier Park Village.  That meant an hour-long drive on curvy roads, which I hoped to finish before daylight was completely gone.  Even so, I was tempted by the blue-hour glow at the Wild Goose Island Overlook.

This would be a great place to stop for photos in the early morning or late afternoon.  At both times of day, you’ll get some nice lighting.  In the morning, the sun should rise over the lake, and at the end of the day, the sun will be behind you, providing a nice glow on the mountains.  At this point in the day, though, the sun was gone, and I was enjoying the last few minutes of daylight.

Then, I struck up a conversation with Hope, who was setting up her gear.  Hope loves to shoot at night, and has captured some pretty impressive star trails and Milky Way shots. She was convinced that, in just an hour or two, the Milky Way would appear directly in front of us, and directly over St. Mary’s Lake.

I told her I would love to stick around, but I couldn’t.  That wasn’t entirely true — I just didn’t want to stay out until midnight or later, and then tack-on an hour-long drive on cow-infested curvy roads to get back to East Glacier Park Village.

But… it was so tempting.

I drove to the St. Mary’s visitor center, where I picked up a cell phone signal, and checked in with my family.  It was about 10 p.m.  I could be back to the motel by 11, or I could turn around and head back into the park.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be much of a story if I went home for the night.

I returned to the Wild Goose Island Overlook to find Hope and her husband, Keith, hanging out in almost total darkness.  Keith had a laptop loaded with games to keep him occupied.  He didn’t want Hope out in the dark alone.  And, he didn’t mind paying for a hotel room that he almost never got to sleep in.  He’s a pretty great guy.

Hope walked me through some basics of shooting the stars.  We weren’t aiming for photos of star trails, although I did take a few long-exposure shots with so-so results.  From our location, you could see part of Going-to-the-Sun Road, so the occasional headlights caused problems in a few photos.  But at this time of night, now well past 11, traffic was rare.

It takes a while for every bit of sunlight to disappear from the sky.  You might not realize it, until you’ve actually stood and stared, waiting for it to happen.  But sure enough, probably by midnight or so, the stars had filled the sky.  And it was an impressive sight — more stars than you could imagine, revealing a vast and incomprehensible universe above us.

But, you might notice, there was no Milky Way over the lake.  We did find it, though…

… sort-of behind us, and to the left.  It would have been prettier to see it over the lake, but I was still pleased to have captured this photo.  I had seen some dark, starry nights before, but I had never located the Milky Way until now.  And to get a fairly decent photo of it was even better.

In case you’re wondering, to shoot the Milky Way, you need a few things.  First, a pretty good camera with a pretty good lens.  The camera needs to be able to shoot at a high ISO without capturing a lot of noise.  You might try shooting at around  6,400, 12,800 or higher.  The lower the better, but it has to be high enough to properly expose the picture.  The lens should be “fast”, which means you can open up the aperture to around 2.8.  Mine maxed out at 4.0, which meant I needed a higher ISO to make up for it.  Finally, you need a long exposure — but not so long as to create star trails.  It turns out, the earth is spinning pretty fast.  An exposure of 15 to 25 seconds is okay, but anything longer than that, and your stars get blurry.

Much to my surprise, just before I left, another photographer showed up.  He had been shooting up at Logan Pass, and decided to try another location.  Having captured a nice photo of the Milky Way, and with someone else to keep Hope company, I decided to quit for the night.

On the way back down windy, dark US 89, I came upon some flashing lights.  A police officer stopped me and briefed me on how to proceed past a pretty nasty accident.  I asked him what happened.

In a matter-of-fact, almost Fargo-ish tone, he said, “Oh, he hit a cow.”

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive into Glacier National Park, on the east side, past Wild Goose Island Overlook:

The Bottom Line

I’m not certain if “half” the park really happens after dark — that ratio might be off a bit.  But, Glacier National Park is quite remarkable between sunset and sunrise.  You might want to plan a few hours away from your expensive motel room to experience it.  And who knows, maybe you’ll run into Hope, or me.

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